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Despite being public bodies serving a public good, most police departments operate as secret societies. The push for police accountability includes making their practices more transparent. I recently obtained all disciplinary actions taken against Champaign police officers since 2006. Contrary to what I expected, only a small percentage of the disciplinary actions were the result of citizen complaints. The most common reason was for damage to a squad car. Yet there were still several instances of misconduct that threatened both citizens and officers.
This investigation began with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for complaints against Champaign police officers. In a recent case of Gekas v. Williamson, an Illinois appeals court ruled that complaints against officers are public record. Yet my request to the Champaign Police Department was summarily denied. Talking with city attorney Tricia Crowley, I was told that in such cases where an officer has been disciplined, whether for a complaint or for any other reason, the records were publicly available. For example, when Officer Daniel Norbits was suspended for 30 days after the death of Kiwane Carrington, the letter from City Manager Steve Carter was released to the public and the press.
I then decided to file a FOIA request for all disciplinary actions taken against Champaign police officers since 2004. I received letters for 48 cases where an officer had been disciplined. They indicate some curious patterns.
Of the 48 disciplinary actions, only three were the result of complaints filed by citizens. One case in 2007 involved Officer Kristina Benton who, when she responded to a domestic call, was “rude and discourteous” toward the individual who originally called the police. The unnamed person then filed a complaint. Officer Benton only received a letter of reprimand. A 2008 incident involved Officer Chris Young who was also “discourteous” and failed to perform his duties in a “productive, effective, and efficient manner.” The letter does not specify any further, but the citizen filed a complaint, and for his offence Young received a one-day suspension. In the third case, also from 2008, Officer Jamie Bowersock approached a car in an alley to the north of 100 E. University with a loud stereo. Despite departmental rules prohibiting abusive language “concerning race, sex,” he told the driver of the car, a man named Marcell, to “stop whining like a girl.” After Marcell lodged a complaint, and the incident was investigated, Bowersock was given a letter of reprimand. Lieutenant Michael Paulus expressed his disappointment in the officer for allowing Marcell to “bait you” and for failing to uphold his policy of “progressive enforcement.”
Disciplinary letters were also handed out to officers for things like failing to show up in court, being absent during training, or using profanity. By far the most common reason for disciplining an officer was for damage to a squad car, or, as stated in departmental policy, failing to operate vehicles in a “careful, prudent manner.” Out of 48 disciplinary letters, 23 were for failing to properly operate a vehicle. For example, former Champaign Police Officer and Republican political hopeful Mark Medlyn was at a four-way stop at Bradley and McKinley Avenues in 2007 when he rear ended the car in front of him.
Other disciplinary actions were for more egregious violations. In 2009, Officer Eric Bloom was twice told to return an individual’s wallet. Failing to do so resulted in the owner’s mother becoming “extremely upset.” A letter of reprimand was given to Bloom. In a case from 2007, Officer Douglas Kimmie ran a criminal background check on a citizen “for reasons which were not entirely duty related.” Despite this serious infringement upon one’s Fourth Amendment right protecting them from unreasonable searches, Kimmie was only issued a letter of reprimand. My attempt to get more information on this incident was denied.
Out of the total disciplinary actions, only four led to suspensions of one or more days. Three have been mentioned already: Young (one day), Bloom (two days), and Norbits (30 days). In 2007, Officer Elizabeth Mennenga was suspended for 12 days because she displayed “contact of an insulting or provoking nature,” although no further details are provided in the suspension letter.
Five Cases In More Detail
In most cases, there were no arrests and therefore no police reports describing the incident. There were five cases in which I was able to obtain further documentation. In one case from 2006, Officer Alison Ferguson was given a letter of reprimand for making an “inappropriate comment” to an African American woman she placed under arrest. Her police report does not indicate what was said, although it states that the woman “wanted to argue about being arrested.”
Officer Daniel Ward received a letter of reprimand for car chase in 2009 because he failed to follow departmental policy in police pursuits. Ward unnecessarily engaged in a high speed pursuit, without sounding his siren, and not notifying others of the 90 mile per hour speeds. In the end, the suspect got away.
When Champaign police responded to a call about a suicidal man in September 2009, Officer Andre Davis was disciplined for accidentally firing his gun. This was just a month before Kiwane Carrington was, according to the police account, killed when Norbits’ gun accidentally discharged. Champaign police had received a call about a suicidal man in a white Buick who was possibly armed. A trained negotiator, Officer Davis was called to the scene. Some may remember Davis as the cop that stopped Brian Chesley, a 17-year-old black youth, who in 2007 was attacked by police for walking through Douglass Park after dark. Davis identified the man in the white Buick outside an apartment complex and other officers arrived as back up. The man got out of his car and was holding a cell phone in his left hand. Davis pulled out his gun and as he was aiming at the man it accidentally went off. There was only about 15 feet between Davis and the man. Fortunately, the bullet did not hit the man, other officers, or residents in the vicinity. The man got on the ground and was put in handcuffs. Even firing a warning shot, as in the movies, is against police training. Davis was given a letter of reprimand for accidentally discharging his weapon.
Two other incidents, when juxtaposed, reveal the racist practices of the Champaign Police Department. In 2009, two black men named William and Calvin were walking at the intersection of Hedge Road and Hedge Court in Garden Hills when they were spotted by officers Jeremiah Christian and Rob Morris who were riding in their squad car. According to police reports, the two men were “improperly walking in the roadway” in violation of the vehicle code regulations. Yet there are no sidewalks on either side of the two streets. African American residents of Garden Hills frequently complain this tactic is used by police as an excuse for stopping and questioning them.
Officer Morris then got out of the car and proceeded to conduct a body search of William. Morris found $4,000 in cash in William’s pocket which he claimed was from his tax return. When William tried to explain himself, the officer noticed something in his mouth. Morris grabbed him by the jaw and twisted his left arm. William spit out two small bags of marijuana totaling 1.5 grams. Despite his pleas with police not to arrest him or confiscate his money, William was handcuffed and put in back of the squad car.
The other man, Calvin, initially gave police a false name. After seeing his friend being arrested, Calvin took off running. Officer Christian followed him in a foot chase. Officer Morris got in his squad car and took off. He drove across someone’s lawn and into their backyard, hitting the light bar on top of the car on a low-lying tree branch. Morris got out of the car, chased Calvin down, tackled him, and put him in handcuffs. As it turned out, Calvin was not giving police his name because he had an outstanding warrant and was charged with obstructing justice. The warrant was for driving on a suspended license. Calvin was arrested and taken to jail while William was let go and given a city ticket for possession of a narcotic. After the incident was reviewed, Officer Morris was given a letter of reprimand because he left William unsupervised in the back of the squad car while he went on a foot chase.
In contrast is a case from 2008 in which a 20-year-old white student named Michael was walking on campus with a group of his friends and holding an open can of beer when Officer Brian Ahsell drove by them in his squad car. It was just after midnight. As the officer pulled up, Michael dropped the can. Michael confessed he was underage, but told the officer he was not “causing trouble.” Officer Ahsell wrote him a ticket for underage drinking, explaining that he would ticket him for the open container as long as he was cooperative. “Is carrying a beer that big of a deal?” Michael protested. “I wasn’t hurting anyone, I wasn’t causing problems.” Becoming angry, Michael said, “You know, wasn’t there a stabbing on campus last night? Shouldn’t you be dealing with that? I wasn’t hurting anyone.”
After filling out the ticket, Ahsell asked Michael to sign it. Michael spent several minutes reading it, and Ahsell asked him to hurry up. “No,” Michael said. “I’m reading it now and your handwriting fucking sucks so it takes time.” Ahsell took the ticket, wrote “refused” on the signature line, then gave it back and got into his car to leave. Michael yelled at Ahsell asking for his name and badge number. Ahsell told him it was on the ticket. Michael repeated his demand while standing in the middle of the street. Ahsell finally decided to arrest him. Michael protested, “This is fucking illegal. You can’t do this.” Ahsell tried to put Michael in the back of his squad car, but he resisted and was taken to the ground to be handcuffed. Ahsell got Michael into the back of his car and delivered him to the jail. While Michael was being booked, Ahsell changed his mind and decided to release him. In his report Ahsell wrote, “It should be noted that I based this decision on Michael being a U of I student with no known prior police contacts.” Ahsell returned Michael to campus and let him go. After review, Ahsell was given a letter of reprimand for failing to give his name and badge number, which according to department policy officers must willingly provide if asked.
These two final stories make for an interesting contrast. In one, two black men were walking down the street minding their own business and stopped by police. In the other, a white college student was in open defiance of the law and belligerent with police. In the first case there was an arrest; in the second there was none. Admittedly, these are two separate cases, but the different approaches in policing are apparent.
In the end, none of the 48 disciplinary actions addressed the racially disparate policing practices rampant in the Champaign Police Department, only infractions to police-defined guidelines.